Shopper Syndrome

Across the continent, the newspaper world is all agog at a development in Los Angeles. At the helm of a great newspaper there is a new leader, Mark H. Willes, who has a Ph.D., is an economist and at various times a professor of finance, Federal Reserve honcho and head of the General Mills food conglomerate.At the Los Angeles Times, he took over management of an excellent, financially healthy newspaper and shook it upside down. The news that now appears in the assorted sections of the Times is shaped by "management teams" headed by business-side executives. Read that to mean that any major project -- say, an investigative series on ghetto landlords -- must now undergo scrutiny by advertising- circulation-marketing potentates riding herd on the newspaper's bottom line.Casual newspaper consumers may need an introduction to the history of this sort of thing. Yes, for perhaps a century there has been uneasy cohabitation between news production and the marketing of the product. But there was a barrier between the two which, whenever breached, was cause for ethical tut-tuts.By blatantly establishing "no wall" journalism in one of the nation's best, Cereal King Willes threatens to set a new national standard: a cash-box standard.Well, the adverse outcome on content needn't be guessed at. When the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a wire story (not a local one) about sales tricks of car dealers, editor Tim McGuire responded to pressure from local car advertisers by apologizing. When the Phoenix Gazette exposed maintenance problems with American West airlines and was reminded by the airlines president of its $1 million in advertising, reporter Ed Foster was the first to go in a cutback. (It also turned out that the newspaper management had once lent money to financially troubled American West).Two questions: Is the public entitled to expect its local newspaper will alert readers to unbecoming sales gimmicks? Is the public entitled to expect its local newspaper will expose unsafe airlines?Regardless, the Los Angeles Times strategy is catching on, even in Florida. The Columbia Journalism Review reports the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel has established "cross-divisional" teams consisting of advertising, marketing, circulation, and news editors.Every day at every newspaper, the editors gather together at least once in a "news conference" at which they make a group decision as to what accounts are complete enough to print, how prominently they will be displayed and where they will be located. Supposedly, decisions are made for the benefit of the subscribers.Indeed, the issue of newspaper management has deep social significance. In dealing with Cuban issues, without the courage to shrug off its business management, how could the Miami Herald possibly tell the truth in its news columns when threatened by patriots so fervent they have been known to hurl bombs?It takes guts, independent of the bottom line, to manage a good newspaper. When Gardner Cowles purchased The Gainesville Sun in 1962, I began writing editorials. A major policy shift involved race. Slap-happy public officials nationwide, including those in Alachua County, had ignored the US Supreme Court mandate in Brown vs. Topeka for eight years.When the Sun opened up the race issue editorially and began slapping around local segregated institutions, subscriptions in north Alachua County fell like leaves on a winter day. But thanks to the silent suffering of a few Sun executives -- among them Ed Johnson, Bill Ebersole and Bob Tartaglione -- I did not even learn of the financial pressure until years later.Where is that insulation under the Los Angeles Times or Bradenton Herald scheme of management? Nobody's perfect, and The Sun wasn't either. But it sure raised hell with the resolutely racist County Club, riding then-UF President Steve O'Connell's back for remaining a member and likewise chiding the Chamber of Commerce. And it adamantly hewed to independence from assorted power merchants, throwing the County Commission into such a snit that it withdrew its profitable legal advertising.To put it bluntly, the body politic is endangered when the local news media trims its sails just because the wind is rising. What the public needs from newspapers is the truth -- even when it pains. It is not going to get that when the bottom line guys are squatting in the editor's seat.Moral: Critically inspect newspapers. Are their news columns distorted by a selfish concealed agenda which demands political correctness and protects wayward officials while titillating and covertly sneering at its readership? Who is winning around here, cement plants or the citizenry? Growth barons or the taxpayers?


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